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Machine Embroidery

Embroidery Backing Guide: How to Choose the Best Embroidery Stabilizer for Your Projects


Embroidery backing (also known as embroidery stabilizer) is essential for machine embroidery. It prevents your fabric from puckering and stretching during stitching.

Choosing the right embroidery backing takes practice, and it’s an important step in bringing your embroidery designs to life.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through the types of machine embroidery backing available and give you my best tips on choosing the best backing for your project.

If you’re looking for a quick answer, use the links to jump to the section you need, or reach out to me in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!

What is embroidery backing?

Put simply: embroidery backing gives your fabric stability. It prevents your fabric from folding and puckering while your embroidery machine is stitching out your design.

In machine embroidery, backing is always used with an embroidery hoop. This holds the fabric in place, keeping it as flat and stable as possible.

What are the main types of embroidery backing?

There are three main types of backing used in machine embroidery:

  • Cut-away backing
  • Tear-away backing
  • Wash-away backing

These names tell you how the backing gets removed from the fabric after your design has been stitched.

Some embroidery backing stays on your fabric, but most get removed when you’ve finished stitching. Embroidery backing also comes in different weights, and it’s important to match the right “weight” with your fabric and project.

Here’s a quick rundown of these backing types and the projects you would typically use them for.

Cut-away embroidery backing

This is generally considered the most stable backing you can use for machine embroidery projects. Once you’ve finished stitching, any excess cut-away backing is trimmed from your design, but any of the backing that sits behind the stitching will remain.

Cut-away backings are used for:

  • Stabilizing stretchy, delicate, and knit fabrics
  • Achieving a “crisp” look in the detail of your embroidery design
  • Maintaining the shape of a design once it’s been washed a few times
  • Embroidery on with garments that are already stretched or manipulated
  • Avoiding sagging/stretching

Here are the types of projects where you should use cut-away backing:

  • You need a super sturdy base for any type of fabric
  • Your project involves stretchy or knit fabrics (in this case you always need to use cut-away backing)
  • Heavyweight cut-away backing is usually used for sweatshirts, heavy fabrics, and designs with a lot of stitches
  • Medium weight cut-away backing is good for medium weight t-shirts and fabrics
  • PolyMesh cut-away backing is super light and usually a safe bet for woven fabrics, lightweight stretchy fabrics, and baby/children’s clothing

Some tips for using cut-away embroidery backing:

  • Blunt-end scissors and a gliding scissor motion can be helpful during the removal process
  • Don’t cut too close to the embroidery, and don’t let your fabric fold over
  • Avoid removing cut-away backing that is inside the embroidery design itself—just trim the excess around the edges

I like to use the following cut-away embroidery backing with my projects:

Cut-Away: Super Stable: 30cm x 5m: White Brand: Madeira 

Iron-on non-woven ideal for thick stretchy fabrics

Cut-Away: Super Stable: 30cm x 5m: black Brand: Madeira

Heavy-weight, soft, non-woven permanent stability for dense designs

Tear-away embroidery backing

Tear-away backing is popular amongst machine embroiderers. It’s a great choice when you want to get rid of all of the backing from your embroidery design. 

Tear-away backing is great for:

  • Reducing the chances of you cutting into your finished design (every embroiderer’s worst nightmare!)
  • Quick and easy removal (you literally just tear it away from your fabric once you’ve finished with the stitching)

Consider using tear-away backing in these types of projects:

  • When you’re working with any type of fabric except for stretchy, knit, and sheer fabrics
  • Heavyweight tear-away backing is great for designs that involve a lot of stitching
  • Medium weight tear-away backing is firm and easy to remove
  • Light weight tear-away backing is super easy to remove and will leave a nice, clean edge

Some tips for using tear-away embroidery backing:

  • Make sure your tear-away backing can be torn in both directions. One-directional tear-away backing usually has to be “tugged” to remove it, which increases the chances of distorting or even ruining a delicate embroidery design.
  • Tear this backing as close to your embroidery stitching as you can.
  • If distortion is going to be an issue, you could use two lighter layers of tear-away backing and remove them one at a time. Just keep in mind that this will take you longer and cost you more money, so only take this approach when it’s absolutely  necessary. For more stability in this scenario, an iron-on tear-away backing would be my preference.

I like to use the following tear-away embroidery backing with my projects:

Stitch ‘n’ Tear — Vlieseline

50m x 90cm

Tear-Away Cotton Stable — Madeira 

Wash-away embroidery backing

Do you need to remove all of the backing from your project? Wash-away embroidery backing is a good choice. The catch is that it can only be used on certain types of projects.

Wash-away backing is great for:

  • Removing all traces of backing from your project

You should use use wash-away backing for these projects:

  • Embroidery designs on sheer fabric
  • If you are making a lace design on the embroidery design
  • Use thin wash-away backing on fabric that has a pile – e.g towelling or fleece. This stops the stitches from becoming buried in the fabric. You would use this backing as well as the backing that is underneath the fabric.

Do not use wash-away backing on:

  • Fabric that can’t be washed
  • Designs that involve a lot of stitching. This can be tricky to master if you are making lace designs, as some involve a lot of stitches and you need the wash-away backing to last until the end of your design and not perforate during stitching out.

Some tips for using wash-away embroidery backing:

  • When removing this backing, try and tear away as much of it as you can (gently!). This will speed up the removal process.
  • Rinse using warm water to remove the rest of the backing
  • Leave to dry flat and completely as some residue may not come out and this can leave your lace slightly stiff.

I like to use the following wash-away embroidery backing with my projects:

Wash-Away: Avalon Ultra: 

30cm x 3m: Clear Brand: Madeira – Extremely firm and stable water-soluble film, to embroider intensely without tearing

Wash-Away: Avalon Film: 

30cm x 10m: Clear Brand: Madeira – Water-soluble transparent clear film ideal for looped fabrics and knits

How to choose the right embroidery backing for your embroidery project

Here’s what you should think about when you’re choosing the type of embroidery stabilizer to use for your next embroidery project.

What type of fabric are you using?

  • Knit or stretchy fabric? You need to use cut-away backing.
  • Using sheer or see-through fabric? Wash-away backing is a smart choice.
  • Make sure that the weight of your fabric and backing match up.
  • If the fabric you’re using has a pile or a nap, the design (and backing) need to be complementary. A design with a lot of stitching can overwhelm a lightweight fabric. Heavy, napped fabric can overwhelm a light, open design.

What type of embroidery design are you creating?

  • If your design involves a lot of stitches, you’ll need a heavier stabilizer.
  • If you need to use a specific backing (e.g. cut-away backing for stretchy fabric), make sure your design works well with that backing

What kind of “feel” do you want your final design to have?

  • How much drape do you want? A lighter stabilizer (tear-away, wash-away) will give your final design more drape. A heavier stabilizer will give your garment weight and stiffness.
  • Will someone be wearing this design? If so, cut-away backing might not be the best choice (it will stay on the fabric and could irritate the skin of the person wearing the garment)

If you’re unsure, you can always experiment with a test swatch in a smaller hoop before starting on your project. 

Do you always need to use embroidery backing with machine embroidery?

Yes! Backing is essential for machine embroidery. If you don’t use it, you risk your design becoming distorted. The only exception for this would be if you are embroidering onto medium to heavy weight canvas, as that is quite stable on it’s own. Personally I would still use a lightweight tear-away with canvas, just in case!

Using a backing material will also limit fabric fibres coming loose and falling into your bobbin case area. This can cause problems for your machine later on and it’s worth checking for any build-up in the bobbin case every few months.

“I personally don’t use spray adhesives, as they can build up on your needle and affect how your design looks. 

Is embroidery backing necessary for hand embroidery or free-motion embroidery?

You’re going to have to use your best judgment on this one. Generally you don’t need to use backing with hand embroidery projects. It does however help with free-motion embroidery as this type of embroidery on a sewing machine causes more friction on your fabric. 

However, if your fabric feels like it needs support, then some tear-away backing can be a good idea.

Where can you buy embroidery backing?

Any good sewing-machine dealer who specialises in embroidery and fabric stores will stock embroidery backing. If you prefer to shop online, check out Amazon and other online sewing retailers.

Do you need to use fabric adhesive with embroidery backing?

No, you don’t. 

Fabric adhesive temporarily sticks your embroidery backing to your fabric. It can help to keep your fabric and backing in place while you’re hooping and stitching. 

However, I personally don’t use spray adhesives, as they can build up on your needle and affect how your design looks.

If you’re having the same problem, you can use a self-adhesive embroidery stabiliser like Filmoplast. 

Self-adhesive backing can be used to stick your fabric directly to your hoop. It also helps to avoid hoop burn, which can appear on fabrics that mark easily. 

The downside of this backing is the price. In the UK, self-adhesive backing costs around £7.99 ($10 USD) per metre, which makes it one of the most expensive embroidery stabilisers you can buy. It’s also a little more tricky to line up your fabric in the hoop.

I always recommend Filmoplast as the best self-adhesive embroidery backing for projects that call for it.

Filmoplast

  • Good for all fabrics
  • Convenient and easy to use
  • You can tear off any excess when you’re finished

And if you want to use fabric adhesive (it’s okay to use for the right combination of design and fabric!), I recommend using:

Odif’s 505ADr adhesive spray

  • Has always done a good job of bonding fabric for my projects
  • It’s colourless and odourless, so it doesn’t smell or stain
  • Also works for basting, hemming, quilting, and machine applique

Madeira MSA1100 Spray Adhesive 

  • This one’s just as good as Odif 505AD. I’ve found it great for machine embroidery.
  • Helps me avoid pinning and saves me a lot of time 

Do this if you’re new machine embroidery

When you’re just starting out, it’s helpful to play around with a bunch of different types of stabilizers so you know how each of them work.

To get a feel for all of the different types of backing without spending too much money, try something like this Stabilizer Starter Kit. 

It includes samples from 12 popular embroidery stabilizers, along with with a stabilizer “know-how” brochure.

It’s a great reference pack to keep and refer back to as you get more experience.

Still not sure which type of backing to use?

If you’ve read this far and you’re still not sure which type of embroidery stabiliser to use for your project, tell me what you’re trying to embroider on your machine in the comments below and I’ll get back to you with an answer.

Happy embroidering!

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